Someone once said of Gram Parsons that "his sadness was like his image." That he "should have played the blues." Had he been born a poor black sharecropper's son, he probably would have.
Instead, Parsons, born Cecil Ingram Connor, was a trust-fund baby, part of a wealthy Southern family replete with a history worthy of the most tortured melodrama. During his 27 years, Parsons tried his hand at almost every kind of music, yet he's best remembered as a progenitor for a uniquely singular style.
Much like the late '60s' premier musical alchemists, The Band, Parsons had an unspoken feel for what's often referred to as "white soul music." Transcending the limitations of sheer mimicry, Parsons sought to create something genuinely new out of traditional country, R&B and rock 'n' roll. Parsons saw this potential hybrid with a distinctly clear vision, even giving it a name: "Cosmic American Music."
While his reputation as a genius has become a tad inflated over the years, there is no denying that Parsons was a genuinely gifted artist, with an irrefutable charm and a voice capable of conveying the most delicate nuances of human emotion (see "Hot Burrito #1"). There's also little doubt that in his work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons served as a catalyst, influencing the music of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and in effect altering the course of popular music. Alas, for the masses, Parsons' life is little more than a curious footnote in rock 'n' roll history. His death is especially tragic when one considers that Parsons might actually have hit it big as part of country's mid-'70s "outlaw movement" had he only lived a few more years.
A small multimedia cottage industry has sprung up around Parsons since his death. In addition to the parade of official and unofficial releases, tribute albums, fanzines and memorial concerts, Parsons has an entire museum (in the guise of a bed and breakfast) dedicated to him in his home state of Florida. Parsons' legacy has also received a healthy boost from a recently reissued biography, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, by former Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres. Former Long Ryders singer and longtime Parsons scholar Sid Giffin has also contributed with his treatise Gram Parsons: A Musical Biography.
Last year, California-based Sierra Records also made the first Parsons video release available -- a 20-minute concert performance from a stop during his 1973 solo tour. The quality of the tape is less than perfect, but the rare chance to see this legend (as well as a youthful, tambourine-banging Emmylou Harris) is worth every squinting moment.
Apart from the critical myth-making and visual curios, the only way to really understand and appreciate Parsons is to become familiar with his musical oeuvre. For the uninitiated, the best overall sampler is an Australian import from Raven Records, titled Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues: 1963-1973. This comprehensive omnibus brings together tracks from almost every period of Parsons' career, including his early folk material as a member of The Shilohs. Warm Evenings also collects material from the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, his two solo efforts and one cut from his Live 1973 album.
Although at last count there were literally dozens of Burrito Brothers collections available (generally as expensive imports, since the music of the Byrds, Burritos and Parsons is massively popular in Europe and Scandinavia), the best starting point is A&M's Farther Along: The Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The set contains nearly all of the material from the group's seminal debut, Gilded Palace of Sin, and its follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, as well as hard-to-find covers and oddities. But be forewarned. There have been a number of inferior albums released under the name Flying Burrito Brothers that don't feature Parsons, Chris Hillman or, for the most part, any other original group members.
The Flying Burrito Brothers' third record, an attempt at a "pure, honest country album," was cut short in mid-1970 when Parsons left the group. Some of the demos the band recorded earlier that year with producer Jim Dickson surfaced on an A&M collection released in 1976. Billed as Gram Parsons/The Flying Burrito Brothers Sleepless Nights, the set includes nine ragged-sounding covers featuring the Burritos' second lineup (which included future Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon).
The album (currently in print as an import) is worth owning if only for a trio of previously unreleased songs cut with Emmylou Harris during sessions for Parsons' 1973 swan song, Grievous Angel, which was released posthumously. The duo's ethereal harmonies positively sparkle on a pair of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant cuts ("Brand New Heartache" and "Sleepless Nights") as well as the Louvin Brothers classic "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night."
For those interested in pursuing Parsons further, here are five albums definitely worth seeking out:
International Submarine Band
Safe at Home
(Sundown/Magnum Music Group)
Parsons and his International Submarine Band relocated from New York City to the sunnier confines of Los Angeles in 1967, signing with producer Lee Hazlewood's LHI label. By the time their debut Safe at Home was released in early 1968, the group had already broken up, and, not surprisingly, the album barely made a commercial ripple. However, its lasting impact is significant. When placed in a historical context, Safe at Home is a stunning blend of genres, and one that would foreshadow Parsons' later work with both the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Although the album is uneven in spots, it's an instructive historical document, as you can literally hear Parsons developing his unique vision on originals like "Blue Eyes" and "Luxury Liner" as well as with his interpretations of material like "That's Alright" and "Folsom Prison Blues" -- songs that had successfully synthesized country, R&B and rock 'n' roll a generation earlier.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
The worst-selling Byrds album during its initial release, Sweetheart of the Rodeo's legend has multiplied exponentially over the years. Although Parsons' tenure with the band was only a matter of months, his determined fusion of rock and country altered the group's direction, as well as its place in music history. Sweetheart's "longhair country" is chronologically important, as it preceded Dylan's own respite into the form (with 1969's Nashville Skyline) as well as the Eagles, whose watered-down version of Parsons' formula has made them the biggest-selling group in American recording history.
As a result of contractual battles with Hazlewood, Parsons' voice had to be stripped from a number of tracks on the album (with the notable exception of "Hickory Wind"), including "The Christian Life" and "You Don't Miss Your Water." Several songs featuring Parsons' restored vocals emerged as part of Columbia's 1990 Byrds boxed set. This expanded version of the album (released in 1997) includes most of those tracks as well as several other bonus cuts and alternate takes featuring Parsons.
Flying Burrito Brothers
Gilded Palace of Sin
Arguably the true big bang of country-rock or (as Parsons preferred) Cosmic American Music. The album's photos show Parsons wearing a Nudie tailored cowboy suit, emblazoned with a giant red cross on the back, cannabis leaves on the front and outlines of naked women on the lapels. A humorous and cheeky gesture, no doubt, but also a symbolic representation of Parsons' musical mission. His instinctive desire to merge the sacred (country, gospel) and the profane (rock 'n' roll, R&B) is captured perfectly on shimmering evocations like "Sin City" and "Hot Burrito #1," as well as the white-country-boy-does-Memphis-soul of "Do Right Woman" and "Dark End of the Street."
While the feel and performances on this repackaging of Parsons' solo output are loose (especially on GP), the most revelatory aspect of the two-album set is found in Parsons' vocal duets with Emmylou Harris, then a struggling singer-songwriter. The naturally glorious sound their vocals produce can elicit goose bumps from even the most jaded and hardened of listeners. Their voices soar to rapturous heights on Harlan Howard and Tompall Glaser's "Streets of Baltimore" and the Bryants' "Love Hurts" (yes, it's the same song that Nazareth butchered some years later). Grievous Angel also features some of Parsons' most fully realized originals, including a pair of wistful laments, "Brass Buttons" (written when Parsons was only 19) and "$1000 Wedding." Grievous Angel's most uplifting moment comes with a faux live medley of "Cash on the Barrelhead" and the definitive version of Parsons' signature song, "Hickory Wind."
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels
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Recorded as part of a radio broadcast for Long Island's WLIR, this live album finds Parsons at the peak of his all-too-brief solo career. The set is primarily a run-through of material from Parsons' solo debut, as well as a smattering of covers and chestnuts from his own back catalogue.
"This is an old song I did with the Byrds when I was in fear of getting my life taken away from me. Sometimes all you can do is sing gospel music." With that introduction, Parsons and his group gently launch into "Drug Store Truck Driving Man" -- a surrealistic country waltz (meant as a dig against Nashville disc jockey Ralph Emery, who insulted the Byrds during their famed 1968 Opry appearance). Co-written with Roger McGuinn, the song captures the essence of Parsons' greatest talent -- bringing a seemingly incongruous rock 'n' roll lyric together with a loping country rhythm, and then merging his pained and broken voice with Emmylou Harris' soulful harmony, to produce a blissful noise simultaneously full of joy, pain, despair and whimsy -- in short, pure emotion. -- Bob Mehr